There’s a strong likelihood many of us will want to forget 2020, but don’t include Honda Performance Development in that conversation.
Amid all the strange and forgettable aspects of a year tainted by division and a global pandemic, a rather remarkable series of achievements were earned by HPD that have made 2020 the most successful season in its history.
On the NTT IndyCar Series front, Chip Ganassi Racing and the No. 9 Honda driven by Scott Dixon delivered drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships as Honda-powered teams claimed 50 percent of the wins. And for good measure, the series’ crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500, was won by Takuma Sato in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 30 Honda, giving HPD a clean sweep of IndyCar honors.
The trend continued in IMSA where Honda’s sister brand, Acura, vied for glory in the top and bottom WeatherTech SportsCar Championship classes. In DPi, Acura Team Penske ran the table for HPD, claiming the drivers’ title with Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves, and Alexander Rossi in the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 prototype. Teams’ and manufacturers’ championships were taken as well for HPD’s second clean sweep of the year, and second consecutive in DPi.
And in GT Daytona, where Meyer Shank Racing entered 2020 as the defending champions with the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3 Evo, the squad repeated, with Mario Farnbacher, Matt McMurry, and Shinya Michimi handing drivers’, teams’ and manufacturers’ crowns to HPD to complete its third clean sweep.
“This has been a very special year,” HPD president Ted Klaus told RACER. “It is absolutely worth celebrating, and it’s nice to come up for a breath of fresh air after a long hard grind, and really say thank you to each and every person at Honda Performance Development that really just has been getting after it, not only this year, but for some years leading up to this. But there is no question that we hit all of our targets, all of our stretch targets, all of our dream targets, all together in one year, and it is starting to sink in. And it was an unusual year. For us to do this in any other year, it might have been magnified even more, but that doesn’t lessen the achievement and the sense of satisfaction.”
If filling HPD’s proverbial trophy case with eight significant pieces of hardware, and adding another driver to the Indy 500’s BorgWarner trophy wasn’t enough, HPD’s total domination of ‘The Greatest Spectacle In Racing’ from the start of practice through qualifying and a 1-2-3-4 in the race could be its defining performance of the year.
“At the end of the 500 in 2019, we immediately set sights on the 2020,” Klaus said of losing the race to Simon Pagenaud in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevy. “We didn’t know about the turmoil we’d all be facing then, but you clearly start with the 500 and you really measure your success. That’s the yardstick for the whole season. So to lock out the front row in qualifying; almost lock out all Fast 9 spots in qualifying, and then to go earn it in the race… What’s not lost on me is we not only finished with the top four positions, but they cover three different teams, with two of the three Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars in the top three, plus Ganassi, plus Dale Coyne’s team.
“So, it was just a tremendous accomplishment. It is magnified by the extremely tight competition, and so very little to be found in the way of large performance gains with an engine formula in its final stages. So, therefore, it was an accomplishment of people putting together all the small gains into a well-balanced setup that multiple teams could get after and achieve. I don’t know that we’ve ever had that dominating of a performance in the 500, and we really relished it and we really are celebrating those achievements.”
As Klaus, who joined HPD as its leader early in 2019 and is set to retire from Honda at the beginning of December, watched Chevy take the Indy 500 and the drivers’ championship with Penske’s Josef Newgarden, ideas for a new working relationship style with its IndyCar teams were turned into action items. The byproduct of the change was evident as Dixon and former teammate Felix Rosenqvist combined to win the opening four races.
“We really sought to reinvent ourselves between 2019 and 2020, similar to how Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing did the same on their end,” he said. “There was an appreciation for just how much the 2019 season and results didn’t sit well with us. So together, there was a hunger there, led by Scott, and so we experienced this reinvention. One of the keys to achievement in life is to truly throw away the old ways and reinvent yourself. And I think the same could be said for the whole Rahal camp, as Piers Phillips is bringing in new ideas there, and it takes a lot of guts for people to follow the new ideas.
“I think if we took that out across all the Honda teams, there’s a renewed openness to allow HPD, to do the things that only we can do and support all those teams, not only with our powertrain, but with our driving simulator. Then there’s a renewed set of ears, if you will, on HPD, listening to our teams and really quickly responding to their ideas and their demands of us. So I think that teamwork was better. We were really letting the drivers lead us in the direction we need to go, and our teams, and HPD is supporting all of that.”